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Royal Navy (Front-line Equipment)

13. Mrs. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton): What progress he has made with enhancing front-line equipment for the Royal Navy. [148230]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie): We have under way the largest warship programme for many years. This includes the type 45 destroyer equipped with the principal anti-air missile system; new aircraft carriers with new carrier- borne aircraft and airborne early-warning aircraft; Astute class submarines; new amphibious support ships; and multi-role survey vessels. The Royal Navy will also be

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supported with new roll on/roll off vessels and new auxiliary oilers. This is just part of a huge programme of modernisation that, I am happy to say, is progressing well.

Mrs. Gilroy: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Will he confirm that the Government's plans to procure two new larger aircraft carriers for the Royal Navy will not be affected by the outcome of the general election?

Dr. Moonie: Given the performance of the Opposition, I do not think that that will be a problem.

Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh): Does the Minister recall saying a few moments ago that the Government believed in competition within the warship-building industry? Does he not realise that when the Secretary of State announced fair and equal shares in the type 45 programme last year, that in itself persuaded Vosper Thornycroft to share its commercial and engineering techniques with the big players? As a result, it is subject to predatory pricing and is likely to be driven out of the marketplace, which would be a loss to warship building and to the country's economy? What does the Minister have to say about honouring the pledges made in the House to protect smaller players from predatory pricing?

Dr. Moonie: There has been no change to date in our policy, which is to conduct a procurement exercise involving both yards, under the direction of the prime contractor. That remains the policy.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): Will my hon. Friend ensure that future large aircraft carriers will be capable of operating Eurofighter, as that will ensure that we have a seaworthy--or rather, sea-going--version of Eurofighter, which will benefit jobs in the north-west?

Dr. Moonie: The decision on the further development of Eurofighter has not yet been taken. I am sure that my hon. Friend is well aware that we are committed to supporting the early stages of development of the joint strike fighter, which promises to be a most exciting and effective aircraft.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): Will any royal naval fleet submarines be decommissioned earlier than planned?

Dr. Moonie: No.

Defence Expenditure

14. Mr. Alan W. Williams (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr): How much total expenditure on defence was as a percentage of gross domestic product in the last financial year. [148231]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar): Over the last year defence spending has represented 2.4 per cent. of gross domestic product.

Mr. Williams: Will my hon. Friend confirm that defence expenditure, though rising as a percentage of gross domestic product, is much lower than it was in the

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mid 1980s, thanks to the peace dividend? Will he also confirm that a higher proportion of that spending is now spent on peacekeeping than on offensive capability?

Mr. Spellar: These issues are not so easily divisible. The ability to undertake high-intensity war fighting also produces the forces that have been able to react rapidly throughout the world, very professionally, to bring peace and stability to many areas--to Kosovo, to Sierra Leone and elsewhere. That is all part of the overall capability of our armed forces.

NATO (European Security)

15. Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): When he last met the NATO Secretary General to discuss European security. [148232]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I last discussed European security with Lord Robertson at the North Atlantic Council Defence Ministers meeting on 5 and 6 December 2000.

Mr. Loughton: Does the Secretary of State agree with the head of the European Union's new military staff that, in time, EU rapid reaction forces will compete with NATO?

Mr. Hoon: No, I do not. Indeed, as we have negotiated the way forward between the EU and NATO, it has been clear Government policy that there should no duplication whatever of complementary abilities. We want to make sure that the remaining details that still have to be negotiated are right, and we fully agree with the United States that it is important that there should be no duplication of the various available facilities.

Service Personnel

16. Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries): If he will make a statement on the change in the total number of service personnel since 1979. [148233]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar): On 1 April 1979, the trained strength of the armed forces was 284,200. On 1 December 2000, the trained strength of the armed forces was 189,318. The reduction in the size of the armed forces over the last20 years reflects changes in the requirements of the international situation and defence policy. The roles of the armed forces have changed from those envisaged in the cold war to those defined in the strategic defence review. Our aim is to achieve a balance of resources between platforms, weapons and people, to generate and maintain modern, joint battle-winning forces.

Mr. Brown: Will my hon. Friend confirm that the bulk of the cuts in the number of service personnel occurred under the previous Administration? How many foreign policy-led strategic reviews of defence policy, as opposed to reviews led by the need for Tory cuts, have been carried out since 1979?

Mr. Spellar: I assure my hon. Friend that, as he rightly says, the strategic defence review was led by policy imperatives, followed by resource requirements. He is

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right to identify the fact that under the previous Administration, any such reviews were Treasury led and cuts oriented. Not only were there cuts in the numbers in the armed forces, but targets were overshot. We inherited that situation. It was undesirable because of the extra pressure on our forces, and because it gave a clear impression to people outside that the forces were no longer recruiting. I pay tribute to the recruitment organisations of the three services, which have made a considerable effort to get across the message that we are in the business of recruitment, and are still hiring considerable numbers of high-quality young people.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): Does the Minister accept that, as the Adjutant-General said, at the present inflow rate of personnel to the Army, it will take 31 years to achieve the Government's targets? There is therefore no room for complacency. Does he also accept that putting women in the front line in the Army is not likely to enhance morale in the armed services? Furthermore, will he comment on the activities of two Army women who have invited contempt for the Army? Will he do something about that, so that such people do not treat the Army as a game? It is a fully professional service, and women should not treat it in that way.

Mr. Spellar: I think that the hon. Gentleman has been reading the wrong newspapers. I am pleased to hear that he is contradicting his own leader on the issue of women in the front line.

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Rather than leap in to this subject, Ministers are awaiting the professional and thorough study undertaken by the Army, which will report later this year. We will evaluate that and report to the House. We are certainly not complacent about recruitment numbers. As I just said, we inherited a serious situation: not only were numbers down, but the impression had been given that we wereno longer recruiting. [Interruption.] Contrary to the impression given by the bawling of the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), numbers in the Army are going up. That is a tremendous tribute to the training machine that gets recruits through to the Army, and the efforts of our recruiters, especially as employment levels have risen by 1 million, thanks to the excellent economic policies of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Traditionally, people believe that recruitment suffers when employment rises--but now the attraction of our armed forces ensures that recruitment, too is rising. That is good for the forces, and a good sign for our economy.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): Should it not be entirely for women in the armed forces to decide whether they are capable and fit to do the job in the front line? If they are, they should be able to do it, and there should be no discrimination against them. Should that not be the Government's policy?

Mr. Spellar: Our policy is to await the outcome of the review being conducted by the Army, which will be conducted in depth, and extremely professional. We would, of course, be interested to know what the joined-up policy of the Opposition is.

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